Nicole is an environmental engineer working in the water and sanitation space.
She began her career in 2014 as a graduate at Water Corporation WA, and recently volunteered with Engineers Without Borders as a field professional in Cambodia. However, as you’ll hear, her first big deployment was cut short by the COVID pandemic, so she has found herself back at Water Corp for the time being.
Nicole is truly passionate about sustainability and bringing a community-centred focus to all the work she does, no matter where she is. She has volunteered extensively with Engineers Australia and in 2019, she was a highly commended nominee for the AWA Young Water Professional of the Year.
This is a “close” copy of the words that were spoken during the Podcast, Season 4 Episode 3
It is not 100% accurate.
The guest was Nicole Locke
Nicole: [00:00:00] I think it was just kind of one of the standard lists going through high school, it was doctor, lawyer, engineer, science. I didn’t really know what it was all about. Engineering appealed to me cause I loved science and I didn’t have to choose what I wanted to be.
[00:00:17]Mel or Dom: [00:00:17] I’m glad it’s on the list though. I was going to say what a great advancement
[00:00:22] Nicole: [00:00:22] A lot of my choices since then have been about keeping as many doors open as possible and having as much flexibility as I could.
[00:00:30]And I kind of grew into the degree over time and eventually decided to major in environmental engineering cause it was sort of the outdoorsy engineering. Got to do some great field trips and I had this really clear connection between what you studied and kind of how it could help the world, it just really spoke to me all through uni.
[00:00:50]Mel or Dom: [00:00:50] So after you finished your degree, what was the first project that you worked on as an engineer?
[00:00:54]Nicole: [00:00:54] I didn’t really work on specific projects, but I did my first graduate year with Water Corporation out in Northern, in the operations sector. So every day was something a bit different. lots of little things, lots of little problems that you needed to go off and solve.
[00:01:09]It was a great role when you’re working with a service provider, you’ve got that extra human element where if things go wrong people are gonna tell you that you’ve done something wrong, they’re gonna let you know about it. it definitely keeps you accountable for every single decision that you make, and you can never take community impact for granted.
[00:01:27]And I think that that was a really great place to stop my engineering career. And it’s definitely shaped my thinking around it ever since.
[00:01:34]Dom: [00:01:34] I think it that gives you such a broad knowledge as well in regards to when you’re working on that side of the fence, particularly in regards to those sort of critical areas of engineering that you get such an appreciation of the impact that your engineering has on the community as a whole, working so closely to the community from day one.
[00:01:53]Nicole: [00:01:53] Yeah. No, a hundred percent agree.
[00:01:55]Mel or Dom: [00:01:55] where are you right now?
[00:01:58] Nicole: [00:01:58] Uh, yes, that’s a great question. I am currently in Perth. I am recovering from a COVID related work disruption.
[00:02:08]Mel or Dom: [00:02:08] That’s a good way of putting it. Although I did think it was going to be something worse like you started was like, Oh, are you okay?
[00:02:16] Nicole: [00:02:16] Yeah. so I guess, yeah. A couple of months ago I was actually volunteering with engineers without borders in Cambodia. unfortunately we all had to get repatriated just because of, because of everything that’s happening. and I’m currently transitioning back into water corporation sort of doing some asset management and risk management work.
[00:02:34]Mel or Dom: [00:02:34] Had you been in Cambodia very long?
[00:02:36]Nicole: [00:02:36] Uh, so for about two months and I was still been doing some ad hoc volunteering remotely with engineers for that borders ever since as well. I guess the, the situation is that that particular assignment is over, but at the same time. once things open up there’s always 1,001 opportunities that come out in that sector.
[00:02:56] So, yeah, I definitely, I don’t know where I’m going to be, you know, this time next year, this time in three years.
[00:03:04] Mel or Dom: [00:03:04] So you definitely get back into the social engineering . Is that something like that, that you’re really drawn to
[00:03:10] Nicole: [00:03:10] Yeah. So I think a hundred percent, but what I’ve realized is that there’s a lot of those elements with my work with Water Corporation as well and I think people put these sorts of engineering roles in boxes where development is where you’re going and you’re helping people and everything else back here is you kind of doing a job where you’re building something, you’ve got a project, but I don’t really see it that way.
[00:03:35]I actually sort of see that social element very strongly in my work with Water Corp because it does have a very intrinsic connection to the community that are probably a lot of people, a lot of engineers don’t realize so. You know, in development, you’re focusing on building something for community or we’re helping community with a particular problem, but you’re still doing that with a place like Water Corp and you’re still doing that with service providers. and I guess every single decision that you make in a place like Water Corp is about making it a better place for communities. Making it more accessible service to customers. I feel that human link very closely with a place like Water Corp, so transitioning from Water Corp to development and back to Water Corp is not as disruptive as you might think.
[00:04:26]Mel or Dom: [00:04:26] That’s actually interesting. do you think it’s because it’s an essential service ?
[00:04:31] Nicole: [00:04:31] Yeah, definitely. and I think when I came out of uni, I think I took it for granted that I would just get a role in mining. And I think a lot of engineers in Perth have that same idea. And when you’re choosing what you want to do, think, Oh, engineering is going off and doing FIFO mine stuff.
[00:04:48]and I guess I didn’t really look at water when I first started studying, but I think I’ve been incredibly lucky to be working with water and be working with something that’s essential for everybody. and it’s not about taking, and it’s not about making a profit, and it’s not about tricking people into making them buy things that they don’t want to buy.
[00:05:09] It’s actually about providing the best service you can. and ironically, it’s probably one of the only companies where we try and encourage people to use less of our product.
[00:05:19] Mel or Dom: [00:05:19] Yeah, that’s true. That’s true.
[00:05:21] Nicole: [00:05:21] And we’re doing a good job when we’re invisible. And that’s completely opposite to a lot of places.
[00:05:27]Mel or Dom: [00:05:27] You’re really selling that, that kind of job, that role. It sounds, it sounds so rewarding.
[00:05:34]Nicole: [00:05:34] I don’t think I could go into a role that was all about numbers and profit and all that kind of thing. If the engineering work doesn’t have a human element and it’s not actively trying to provide some kind of service to a community, I just don’t have time for that.
[00:05:50] Mel or Dom: [00:05:50] It’s interesting as well though, how we take for granted the fact that we don’t need to be in a third world country to be doing something where it has such a massive impact on so many lives. So the work that you do with Water Corp is such a fundamental necessity for everyone out there and we take it for granted. It’s such a critical component.
Nicole: [00:06:12] What I would like to talk about is really the value that I’ve found from volunteering. I’ve done a lot of volunteering ever since I started my career. I’ve been volunteering with Engineers Australia, the young professionals of Water Corp, which is all around assisting young professionals with soft skill development and supporting them through the issues that they face from an industry perspective. And then working as a field professional in Cambodia, which is a more, I guess, active volunteering role, a bit more hands on and actually directly working with communities in Cambodia that have a real need in the water and sanitation sector.
[00:06:48]Mel or Dom: [00:06:48] What made you decide to get into volunteering?
[00:06:52]Nicole: [00:06:52] so all through uni it’s, I think been a little bit on my mind. It’s always been a bucket list item that I wanted to work overseas for a period of time and I really wanted to volunteer using specific specialist skills that aren’t sort of common worldwide and I spent a few years at Water Corporation and I was having lunch with a really special mentor of mine who also works at Water Corporation. And we’re talking about, you know, the future. And I was like, ah, I don’t really know where I want to go next. And she said, Nicole, ever since I’ve met you, you’ve been talking about going overseas and volunteering.
[00:07:29] Why don’t you just go and do it? And I why don’t I just go and do it? So I did it.
[00:07:37]Mel or Dom: [00:07:37] So how did you connect the go overseas and volunteering? I had the same thing where I wanted to go overseas, but it was always to work overseas. What I’m trying to understand is why you chose to do the volunteering to go overseas.
[00:07:52] Why didn’t you just, you know, take your engineering degree and go see the world and, you
[00:07:57] know, gold would rain down from the sky and things like that.
[00:08:01] Nicole: [00:08:01] Yeah. I think from my perspective, I view it as service to the community and service to my profession. So I’ve been working for about seven years. I’m 30 this year, so I’ve actually got quite a lot of my career ahead of me. at the end of the day, what’s one year in 40 to actually give back directly to community. And I think it kind of in my head, I imagined that if every engineer through the whole career just gave up one year in a 40 year career to be doing as much as they can to the community I think that could be a very interesting world.
[00:08:40] Hopefully a nice world to live in.
[00:08:42]Mel or Dom: [00:08:42] when you think of it like that as well, what really, what is a year what is one year in regards to over your whole career? It’s just a blip in time and you can make such an impact in such a short period of time. Yeah, it’s a really great thought.
[00:08:55] Nicole: [00:08:55] Yeah, and selfishly, you get so much out of it and you learn so much as well, so, um, yeah. The altruism is a very big part of it, but you, you get so much out of it as well. So it’s kind of nice to do it at this point in my career and hopefully I can take those learnings throughout the rest.
[00:09:13]Mel or Dom: [00:09:13] I suppose there’s layers of volunteering, so you’ve got your general volunteering that you can do while you’re studying or while you getting a career on the way, but then there’s the full on volunteering way. What you’ve just done is you’ve taken a complete break from work and you’ve gone off and changed everything. Is it, difficult to make that big jump into full volunteering?
[00:09:38]Nicole: [00:09:38] I think it was very difficult to make the jump. And then as soon as I had made the jump, I thought, Oh, this isn’t so bad. I think it’s that, yeah. That mental buildup of taking a pause from what I was doing, figuring out the finances, Oh, what, how am I going to make friends as an adult?
[00:09:57] You know, these things that we, they’re not necessarily as easy as when you’re younger and, you know, what am I going to do with the house and things. So I think there’s a lot of, or I found there was a lot of buildup and then I was over there and it was fantastic. I was so happy.
[00:10:13] I was so comfortable.
[00:10:15]Mel or Dom: [00:10:15] You don’t have those stresses of what you left behind?
[00:10:17]Nicole: [00:10:17] I think generally with these overseas volunteering opportunities, they are so engaging day to day that it’s difficult to keep thinking about home because there’s so much going on. With the work, with learning about a whole new context, and even things just about, you know, how to get around in a completely different country in a completely different context. And, you know, every hour you’re problem solving something new. From that respect, it was, yeah, loved it.
[00:10:44] Maybe if I got to stay a little bit longer, I would get sick of it
[00:10:47] Mel or Dom: [00:10:47] how long were you meant to be there for
[00:10:48] Nicole: [00:10:48] I was meant to be there for 12 months.
[00:10:51] Mel or Dom: [00:10:51] 12 months. Oh, wow. And you only got two months in. Okay, Do you think it makes you also a better engineer just by having that different perspective in regards to what you’re doing and the way you’re doing it? The more hands on approach.
[00:11:03] Nicole: [00:11:03] Yeah, a hundred percent. What I found was when you volunteer the people you are trying to help are always right in the front of your mind. Like it’s all about, we’re helping these people. And it’s a lot easier to avoid tunnel vision and only focused on the end product of, I have to build this, I have to design this, I have to finish this report.
[00:11:24]It’s really the people are very front and center. and I really like Ted Talks, like Simon Sineck all about talking about starting with why, why are we doing this, which is super important. And volunteering really taught me the next step, which is understanding who. And it’s bringing that empathy component and not just doing it for people, but understanding who those people are that you’re doing it for so that you can have a better outcome. And in the development space, there’s dozens of examples where smart, passionate engineers bring a new gadget designed to help a community, but it fails miserably because they don’t understand the needs of the people that they actually designed it for. And so I think coming out and because , as an Australian working in a Cambodian context and being more aware of those cultural differences, and needing to bring that into my engineering has kind of helped me tune my brain in that even when I work in Australia.
[00:12:23] Okay, now I need to stop, pause, think who is the end user? Because, they might still be Australian. They might have a similar context, but they’re not going to be exactly the same.
[00:12:33]I think, you know, one of the best things about actually going to another country and doing volunteering there is that you can actually meet the locals and make real connections and real relationships and that’s, I guess where a lot of the real learning happens.
[00:12:49] Mel or Dom: [00:12:49] So in order to create better engineers and develop that empathy as part of our core basis for design, what would you see as some solutions that we could potentially look at.
[00:13:00]Nicole: [00:13:00] I think whenever we’re looking at a problem we do need to understand why we’re doing it, and we also need to really understand who we’re doing it for. For a lot of projects, doing a little bit of community engagement and making sure that the people who are actually deciding and making the decisions also, I guess, get that influence as well.
[00:13:19] It could provide a lot of benefit to the end product as well. And I think soft skills, so many soft skills and in particular people focus soft skills and communication for engineers is absolutely vital.
[00:13:33] Mel or Dom: [00:13:33] Yeah, a, it was a bit of a strong theme at the um, World Engineers Conference we just recently 2019 , where there is that move to consulting as opposed to just pure engineering that we need to develop our skills, much soft skills. Um, so they’re far better than they have been because that’s really going to be where it is, that consultation between us and the community, us being engineers. And as Mel’s often said it’s that. You don’t build a bridge to go over a river, you build a bridge to join communities and yeah, you’d like to talk to those communities and get those soft skills right. Solution, things like that.
[00:14:12] So, did you feel that you were well prepared to volunteer.
[00:14:16]Nicole: [00:14:16] I did have some training. so my volunteer position was through the Australian Volunteers International AVI. And we did have a couple of weeks of training before going over, it’s more focused on general skills on how to engage with communities because we were met by volunteers who were going to go off to all over the world. So I think it’s not about being trained with, in Cambodia, this is exactly how you do it. It’s more about, this is how you listen to people.
[00:14:43] Mel or Dom: [00:14:43] That sounds like core training for how to be a good engineer.
[00:14:49] Nicole: [00:14:49] yeah,
[00:14:49] Mel or Dom: [00:14:49] surprised. I was surprised. More people don’t do volunteering in their careers, so should everyone go out and volunteer?
[00:14:57] Nicole: [00:14:57] I think there’s so many different opportunities to get that sort of thing. And it doesn’t have to be going overseas and sort of picking up your whole life and going over and doing that. There’s a lot of different community projects and there’s a lot of other ways that you can use your engineering skills that have a really beneficial , impact to the community. So I guess one example was I helped project manage a charity art show, and that was using specific project management skills that I learned in engineering to have a community benefit and every time you do one of these, you know, little projects, you’re practicing a lot of various essential skills in a different environment.
[00:15:34] Mel or Dom: [00:15:34] So what are your thoughts on the future of engineering?
[00:15:36]Nicole: [00:15:36] I believe there’s a strong shift that puts a higher value on empathy and soft skills. It used to be that society would happily accept the decisions of experts, but that’s not true anymore. We’re all accountable for our decisions, and there’s a much greater access to information, and so communication and people skills becomes incredibly relevant and I definitely advise anyone looking to start their career to focus on those skills as well as the technical ones.
[00:16:02]Mel or Dom: [00:16:02] Which leads me into the next question, which is, so what would you say to people who are just starting out.
[00:16:07]Nicole: [00:16:07] I think for people starting out in engineering, I definitely recommend taking charge of your own development. Don’t wait for somebody else to decide what you need. Try and find different roles that challenge you and help you develop skills both in and outside of work. Hint, hint, volunteering will do this. cause at the end of the day, no one cares about your career as much as you do. And there’s so many. Yeah. So many different ways that you can get those skills
[00:16:35]Mel or Dom: [00:16:35] yeah, that’s very true. And I suppose there’s also the, the enjoyment that comes along with it because with a lot of the people that we’ve spoken to, they’ve had all these amazing experiences through being volunteers and traveling overseas and being involved in certain programs. And, There’s a wealth of knowledge and a wealth of experience that seems to come with doing it, so you don’t really have to do much.
[00:16:57] I think it’s just a matter of doing that. It’s a bit like, yeah, it’s a bit like exercise. You don’t have to do a lot of it. You just need to do it and do it regularly, and just that involvement’s only ever going to come back and pay off in spades I’d say.
[00:17:11]Mel or Dom: [00:17:11] Well, this has been quite eye opening to understand the connection of volunteering within your career and the impact it can have. And we’ve talked about in the past how hobbies can make you a more rounded engineer, but it really sounds like if you can volunteer your time, that will also make you I really good engineer. So, yeah. And just to finish up, we’d like to ask some a bit of fun questions to get our minds thinking outside a bit. So what’s a piece of engineering that impresses you.
[00:17:43] Um, I don’t really have an answer to that one,
[00:17:46] Nicole: [00:17:46] I was thinking about it for ages and I was like, Oh, just everything that I use in my day to day life, you can’t actually go down the street without, you know, taking a moment to be impressed with, Oh, look at, look at all these amazing things that we take for granted that engineers have had a hand in.
[00:18:02] Mel or Dom: [00:18:02] Yeah. It takes so much for granted. Mel did a talk at our kid’s school where she basically said to them the car you drove in today. An engineer had something to do with that. The building that you’re in, or that was an engineer and the kids just sort of blew their minds because you don’t think about the involvement that engineers have with pretty much everything that touches our lives, everything we physically touch on a daily basis in regards to just the furniture around us and the microphones we’re talking into and all that sorts of things. There are engineers involved in those sort of along the way. So yeah, it’s pretty amazing career. I may be a little bit biased, but, um,
[00:18:41] so just to finish up, do you have an engineer that you admire?
[00:18:45] Nicole: [00:18:45] I, yeah, I do. So when I first started working at Water Corporation, Sue Murphy was our CEO and, um, I, yeah, she’s, she’s an amazing lady and I thought it was just great to see such a confident, female leader, sort of take the reins of the massive company that I was working for. And you know, when she speaks, she’s got the whole room, just captivated with whatever she’s about to say. And it’s, it’s really the old saying, if you can’t be what you can’t see. And I thought it was just a really inspiring way to start my own engineering career.
[00:19:17]Mel or Dom: [00:19:17] I have to say that I think everyone that we’ve spoken to, every engineer from Perth has said Sue Murphy, and it’s a Testament to just how. Um, sensational engineer she is. It’s just a pity she’s just in Western Australia. I feel like we need somewhere where we can get her across all of Australia because the kudos she gets is, it’s amazing.
[00:19:37] So I think we might have to get engineer’s Australia to see if they can help us get Sue on so we can have a chat to her.
[00:19:45] Nicole: [00:19:45] Oh, a hundred percent
[00:19:46]Mel or Dom: [00:19:46] Thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been lovely discussion. Thanks so much for that. It was great speaking with you.
[00:19:51] Nicole: [00:19:51] Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. I’ve really enjoyed it and hopefully someone can get out something of what I’ve said,
[00:19:57] Mel or Dom: [00:19:57] Oh, absolutely. Yeah. There’s somebody out there who’s thinking about volunteering. I suggest that you just stop thinking about it and go do it.
[00:20:05] Nicole: [00:20:05] Yeah, definitely.
And thank you for listening to engineering heroes as we present the new Dawn of engineering challenges for Engineers Australia.
You can view show notes or learn more about our podcast by visiting our website, www.engineering heroes.com.edu.
If you enjoy today’s show, all we ask for you to do is to go and tell someone either in person or write review. It is that easy for you to show your support for engineers everywhere.
We look forward to you joining us next week when we bring you another interview with one of our engineering champions.